Richard Thompson – Electric (2013)

OK… I’m a big Thompson fan (I have 65 albums by him – and I have a spreadsheet to keep count and so I can tell you that those 65 albums account of 81 physical discs) but we can try (and maybe try too hard just to prove our objectivity).

See above – this is Thompson’s umpteenth recording. It was advertised as an “electric” album, and Thompson had spent some time gigging with a good old-fashioned power trio before going into the studio, but just as his last “solo acoustic” album was neither, so this one has some tracks that don’t fit with the title and it’s implications, but you have to call a record something.

I bought the “de luxe” version of this album that has some out takes from the Electric sessions and some promo tracks from other recent Thompson albums. I tried to cook up a single album for my in-car listening with the bonus tracks inserted into the running order. Bzzzzt! I get the bucket of slime. Those bonus tracks are “bonus” for a reason – either they are unfinished or they don’t fit in well with the greater album. The bonus tracks are interesting, but the main album, with out any additions or sequencing “help”, is the better listening experience.

The producer is Buddy Miller, and he takes a different approach from the recent sonically squeaky clean Thompson albums, with the sound dirtied up – most noticeably on the drums. He also was responsible for bringing in the players that augmented Thompson’s trio, including bluegrass queen Allison Krauss who adds harmony vocals to “The Snow Goose” and ace Nashville fiddler Stuart Duncan who is excellent every time he gets a look in.

The most interesting tracks on the record are those that best fit the title – Thompson with his power trio (Taras Prodaniuk and the always excellent Michael Jerome). These suggest an interesting new musical direction for Thompson (he himself has, in interviews, jokingly likened it to a fusion of Judy Collins and Bootsy Collins) and after the release of this album he toured the trio long and hard. He’s long been an outstanding guitarist – indeed he first made a name for himself as a teenage guitar hotshot with Fairport Convention – and whatever else changes that doesn’t. He’s still a potent presence on guitar with real edge and energy in his playing (contrast him to Eric Clapton who sounds half asleep most of the time these days) and that shines through here. His performance is strong too and the energy and attack on tracks such as “Good Things Happen To Bad People” and “Sally B” is terrific (as are the guitar solos). But at other times it’s Thompson-by-numbers and the record flags a little on what would have been the B-side once upon a time.

But still Thompson looks forward. It may help that he doesn’t have much in the way of hits to fall back on and for his fans to demand. Too many 60s and 70s acts are now nostalgia shows churning out the same old same old. Thompson isn’t and has no super star past to trap him, so he can keep on moving, and he does.

A note about the guitar sound. That IS Electric. Unlike many 60s and 70s (and 80s and 90s) guitar stars Thompson’s never gone for a fat tone.  That doesn’t mean that his tone is not of any import. Thompson is one of the most electric sounding electric guitarists – you can hear the volts and amps. And on this record he delivers brilliant tone – very sharp and attacking and quite, well, electrifying.

Andy Statman – Old Brooklyn (2011)

Another album I picked up on because of comments by a critic I like to pay attention to (in this case the excellent Richard Haslop, one of SA’s best writers on music).

Statman turns out to be a pretty eclectic player, tossing jazz, bluegrass, eastern European Chassidic music and a dash of surf rock into the mix. And he’s a monster player – very, very good on clarinet and downright jaw dropping on mandolin (his first instrument). I said in my review of AC/DC that virtuosity isn’t everything, but Statman gets it right – superb playing (also from his guest players) but with an infectious sense of joy in the playing, and his compositions are always at least respectable foundations for all that marvellous soloing.

So it’s a heady brew, and it’s had me grinning like a fool in my car and, more recently, on the train the last month or so.

Sound wise it’s a very natural sounding record. Some might say TOO natural because Statman has a habit of humming whilst he’s soloing and that gets picked up by the mics. But I think it’s part of his schtick and it doesn’t distract me. In a strange way it adds to the music and so maybe Statman and producer Ed Haber made a conscious decision to leave it in when they could easily have minimised it. Haber is not a producer to overtly stamp his own mark on proceedings and the unintrusive, naturalist style works well here (and given the quality of the playing is all that is necessary – why try to add sonic fireworks when there’s already plenty by virtue of the playing?)

Statman has chops to burn, and the guest players on this record (most notably Byron Berline, Bruce Molksy and Bela Fleck) are hardly any less handy, but that’s not the point – or not the sole point.  You might feel the need to rearrange your face after listening to Statman and Fleck trade solos on “My Hollywood Girls” but it’s intriguing as a composition too.

This album has consistently done two things for me: It has had me marvelling at the quality of the musicianship and it’s put a big smile on my dial.

AC/DC – Back in Black (1980)

Not a band I usually listen to, but there’s been a lot of positive comment – including some from critics I pay a lot of attention to – about Back in Black, and iTunes makes speculative buying more affordable so why not?

First thing – the Young brothers have KILLER guitar tone. And they work so well together. The guitars pack a big punch on this record.

And the guitars are the main selling point. The lyrics aren’t that deep and Brian Johnson’s diction is hardly text book (he screams more than the sings) so you have to listen hard to find out what he’s on about. I like a good lyric but there’s more to life. In some cases the lyrics here verge on the misogynistic, but then you could say the same for a lot of old blues (and Led Zeppelin).

The band is tight and they do what they do very well (which is the same thing I say about Abba). There’s little in the way of frills here and John Lange’s production on this album seems to amount to having stayed out of the way. One of the problems with perfectionist production can be polishing the music until there’s no life left in it. Here there is polish, but life too and a great sound – like everything else here full and solid but without anything fancy (in the absence of any credits to the contrary I assume that Lange engineered as well).  This is a well focused record with the edge left on it.

So not a band I’d list if you asked me what sort of music I listened to, but I get it: The band are EFFECTIVE which is a different thing from being virtuosic but not a less worthwhile thing (it is possible to be virtuosic and redundant). Fans of guitar rock will find a lot to enjoy here with clever interlocking parts from the two Youngs and exciting solos underpinned by a powerful but no-nonsense rhythm section. A great rock ‘n roll racket.